At home with the Bard

15th July 2005 at 01:00
Colleagues warned Garry Burnett not to take his 'unpredictable' pupil on a theatre trip. But what was the worst that could happen?

It was one of those classes you could "do anything with"; highly responsive, motivated, curious and enthusiastic about English, and I made a conscious effort to reaffirm at every opportunity what an absolute joy they were to teach.

"You won't say that when Wayne comes back," they warned ominously. Further enquiries revealed the long and short of Wayne's criminal record and the depth of his near legendary reputation. His unpredictable and sometimes bizarre behaviour included an inexplicable obsession with buses, and turning up at ungodly hours in places as far away from Hull as Scarborough and Doncaster, hiding from officials upstairs at the front, where he had pretended to drive. The last time anyone had seen Wayne in school was as two puffing teachers pursued him across the front lawn with an audience of hundreds while he sent back a double V-sign and bawled "F*** off!" at the top of his voice.

"You want to take him to Stratford?" said his tutor. "You must be joking."

We were studying Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and I had organised a visit to an RSC production starring John "Bergerac" Nettles as Leontes.

Wayne's direct and insightful comments had often added a sparkle to the class's reading, and his appalling spidery handwriting belied a sensitive written understanding of the relationships and themes in the play. Against all advice, I found the money for him to go.

During the minibus ride there I pointed out various sights of note, including, of particular interest to the kids, the actor Michael "Boon" Elphick's pub in Henley-in-Arden. Following our arrival in Stratford, and for most of the rest of that bright December afternoon, we trooped around Bankside, the Holy Trinity Church, Hall's Croft and the Shakespeare town properties trail. "Back at 5.30," I said, waving them off while Mrs Snow and I headed for the theatre cafe, where we were to remain on duty until the evening backstage tour. Little more than 10 minutes later though, Wayne's "minder" Wendy came rushing back wide-eyed to tell me, "Wayne's gone on a bus to see Michael Elphick," and my whole career flashed before my eyes.

"Wait until half-five before you do anything," Mrs Snow tried to reassure me as I strutted and fretted away the longest two hours of my life. "You never know." By 5.30 both of us were beginning to fear the very worst as all but Wayne stood around, stomping away the cold in the damp winter dusk.

"There he is," pointed Wendy as a mud-plastered scarecrow came lumbering out of the dark smelling like an un-flushed toilet.

"Wayne!" I snapped, "Where have you been?"


"Did you get on a bus?"


"You did, didn't you?"


"I warned you didn't I?"


"Where did you go?"

"I went to Anne Halfway's cottage."

"I could have cried," said Mrs Snow later at the thought that, given the choice, Wayne had been the only one to spend any of his free time in pursuit of his further education. All of the others had bee-lined straight from McDonald's to the computer game shop. Then following this he had slipped and fallen full-length on the banks of the Avon while sharing his bread and jam with the swans. I didn't have the heart to reprimand him for that.

He kept that now festering parka on throughout the performance, and brayed like a donkey with laughter at Richard McCabe's brilliant, crooning Autolycus and the phallic maypoles the shepherds clattered together during the Morris dance at the sheep-shearing feast. I had a lump in my throat when he turned to me at the end and said "Sir, that was brilliant."

Afterwards we lingered around the stage door for a photo with John Nettles who, when he momentarily put his arm around Wayne, reminded me of General Melchett when he does the same to Private Baldrick in a trench scene from Blackadder Goes Forth and then recoils in sudden squeamish horror at the overpowering smell. I still have a wonderful photo of Wayne beaming like a full moon as he stood next to "Bergerac", his hero, at the end of a "perfect day".

He passed both his English GCSEs with grade Cs, the only qualifications he achieved, before he left unceremoniously to join the "real world". I've never seen him since. I didn't even hear anything of Wayne until a year later when his old social worker slipped me a copy of the Hull Daily Mail with a full colour Wayne on the front cover and his arm curled adoringly around his tattooed mother. "I'm real proud of him," she was quoted as saying. "He's a good bairn."

He had just taught her to read.

And if anyone ever asked me what I counted as the biggest success of my career so far, I suppose it would be easy to cite spectacular exam results students have bagged or even high profile projects that have featured in the papers, including this one. But, believe me, there would always be a place for Wayne.

Garry Burnett teaches English at a comprehensive in Hull

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